We’re dipping into the Far Out vaults to bring you a vibrant moment of R.E.M.’s early career which saw them confirm their alternative-rock credentials from the very start with a dynamic cover.
Although they would soon top charts and sell out stadiums, R.E.M.’s debut on the music scene saw the band arrive as the emotionally charged and internally intelligent group of your dreams. They were the thinking man’s rock band and their cover of the Velvet Underground’s iconic hit ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ in 1984 is a testament to that.
The footage below was recorded on June 9th, 1984, at the bright and busy beginnings of R.E.M.’s impeccable career. Shot in the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey—in classic black and white— Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills deliver a simply gorgeous performance of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. Attempting to cover the Velvet Underground is one thing, pulling it off is a whole together different proposition.
In 1984, R.E.M were already on their way to becoming the massive band they are today. Formed in 1980 when Michael Stipe and Peter Buck bonded over their love of music by Patti Smith, Television, and yep, you guessed it, The Velvet Underground. Stipe said of their shared love of New York’s finest, “It turns out that I was buying all the records that [Buck] was saving for himself,” and their friendship was cemented.
Having made their national television debut in 1983 on The David Letterman Show, by the summer of 1984, the word had spread and R.E.M. were the new band of choice for the poetically minded and musically righteous. In a decade where the mainstream seemed an ever-widening and treacherous current to ford, R.E.M. offered America the chance for something a little more heartfelt.
What could be more heartfelt than a band singing a cover of one of their favourite songs from the band which initially brought them all together?
Looking back at this performance in New Jersey, in particular, the Athens-based band never hid their love of the VU and especially the band’s perennial leader, Lou Reed. They chose to release the Reed-penned tracks ‘There She Goes Again.’ ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ as B-sides of their singles. It’s the latter of which that we are remembering now.
Having possibly used the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed more than any other band, at least we can all be happy that R.E.M. does it better than anyone else. Stipe’s vocal is that perfectly intoxicating blend of tone-perfect yet idiosyncratic and affected as nobody else could muster. The band amply perform the backing to Reed’s lyrics and with Stipe on the mic, this was always going to be special.
Watch R.E.M’s beautiful cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ from 1984 below: